Growing Up Lean

My introduction to Lean was different from most. Many have read about Lean in a book, had consultants come into the company for training, or started working with a company who was using Lean principles. The reactions to Lean likely vary. Many find it transformative and many find it constraining. You’ve likely heard good things about it and bad things about it. Or maybe you’ve heard of it peripherally, and dismissed it as a management fad.

My father, a former engineer and plant manager at General Motors, came home one day in the mid-90s, and performed 5S, a Lean system for standardized organization, on the house. He marked a place for everything from the cars to pairs of scissors. Eventually, he installed a Kanban system in the bathroom for toiletries and other necessities. My mother played along (and may have even seen the benefit of such a system). This is when I first began to learn about Lean.

But my introduction to Lean thinking began before I even knew what it was. I learned the scientific method during elementary years for science fair projects. My coach through this process was my father, who at that time was beginning to embed Lean thinking into his work at GM. As an engineer, and subsequently a learner of Lean, he asked me questions and led me through the scientific process in a way that was guided by humble inquiry*  and mentorship. He helped me see the steps of what I was doing in terms of a systems perspective.  Even early on, he had gained an understanding that Lean was about more than the tools it promoted. This understanding on his part, may have been based on the kind of parent he was, and eventually his learning around Lean reinforced this coaching behavior as a parent.

In subsequent years, my engagement and learning around Lean thinking continued to grow. The whole time it has been fostered by my personal Lean coach, my Dad. As an undergraduate student in a liberal arts environment studying Greek, Latin and classical history, he challenged the way I thought about myself and the way I thought about my studies through questioning my thinking. Through my first management roles, he helped me to embed Lean practices and Lean thinking into my own work, specifically around engaging my teams in problem solving and continuous improvement. My interest in Lean led to me to choose an MBA program with excellent research and teaching around Lean, which in turn led to an amazing opportunity to spend three months in a small garment factory in Bali in which they were embedding Lean thinking and practices.

When I started to work on a PhD in Organizational Behavior, I at first tried to turn away from Lean. I was so impacted by the negative reactions from people when I said I worked with Lean — that Lean wasn’t meaningful or important, or Lean was just a fad, — that I wanted to distance myself. However, as I began to work on research, I realized that I was guided by Lean thinking – problem solving and continuous improvement, using humble inquiry and engaging people, and seeing work as a socio-technical system. I still believe that Lean has a vocabulary problem, but if you strip away the language and look at what this thinking can really do, it is a powerful system for improving work output and making work better for employees and managers.

My Dad tells the following story. The purpose of a violin maker is to make a violin that will allow the violin player to create even better music than he could with the last violin. This is a fundamental principle of Lean thinking regarding the purpose of work. My job is to help people in their work to achieve this goal through my research and teaching, and for providing coaching and mentorship to people inside organizations. I’m a coach for people working in organizations, and I’m guided by my lifelong learning and application of Lean thinking.

*Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.